Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: Our 16-year-old son has always been taciturn — now he barely speaks to me. Our interactions have degenerated into me nagging him about his grades, chores and activities. He doesn’t appear to be depressed — I’ve asked, probably not the best approach — and he just laughs. He is the only child in the house; his much-older brother was also challenging but with different issues. Your thoughts are appreciated.
Carolyn says: How much parenting do you really still have to do at this point? Does he need the nagging on grades and chores and etc.? Can most of it be accomplished through natural consequences and reasonable parental limits, and occasional schedule confirmations?
I ask because the best thing you can do for your communication is to be a person who likes him as a person. Parents get so used to being the boss and the teacher and the disciplinarian and the banker and the manners-minder that sometimes just enjoying your kid gets pushed off the schedule.
It can be hard to get this back if you’re essentially years from the last time you had a shared activity beyond day-to-day life, but chances are there’s some old ember you can fan. Or you can introduce a new one, if you can resist pushing. Just cooking together side-by-side or hiking together without talking can, over time, loosen up bits of conversation.
The specifics of what you choose aren’t important, except that it needs to be near his wheelhouse and it needs to be something you can credibly do. Being in motion, concentrating on something else, not face-to-face — these are ideal conditions for people to let their guards down. Again — you must resist the urge to push for conversation. Accepting silence is key.
I am the taciturn child around my parents. Really think about all the ways you’ve interacted with your child. Really think. The good, bad and ugly. It’s all there in varying degrees.
At that age, I cut off all contact with my parents as much as I could. If they weren’t constantly correcting me and treating me like their walking report card, they were banning me from friends I’d chosen, forcing me to break up with a kid from a family they didn’t approve of, promising not to freak out and then freaking out, calling my friends’ parents to complain constantly, and letting me know how ashamed they were of me. My mom was That Mom. I’m not saying you’re this bad; I’m saying a lot of self-reflection is in order.
Carolyn says: Thanks. I was sidling up to this and I’m glad you jumped in. Constant corrections are poisonous in almost any context, but they are especially so with a child who is near to fully raised. There comes a point when you have to trust you did your job, and it’s a gift to your kid to start doing that incrementally from when they’re very young — i.e., let them leave the house as toddlers in the terrible outfits they pick out. Early early. So that by the time they’re 16 and aching to get away from you and your rules, you’re comfortable letting go in a way appropriate to the age.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.